Review: Clad in leather, 'The Bikeriders' evokes '60s cool, then watches it fade in the mirror

In the mid-1960s, photojournalist Danny Lyon embedded himself with the Outlaws Motorcycle Club in the suburbs of Chicago, snapping portraits and candid photographs while interviewing members of the gang. The result was a photo book called “The Bikeriders,” published in 1968, that serves as the inspiration for director Jeff Nichols’ latest film of the same name, a meditation on American motorcycle culture, the birthplace of a certain kind of cool.

Nichols is clearly enchanted by the inimitable style and intoxicating lore that Lyon’s photographs conjure, and he populates his cinematic Chicago-based motorcycle club — rechristened the Vandals — with a coterie of ruggedly handsome stars who can make sideburns and motor oil look good, including Tom Hardy, Austin Butler, Norman Reedus, Beau Knapp, Boyd Holbrook, Emory Cohen and Damon Herriman. There are also some unexpected and welcome casting choices like Karl Glusman and young Australian actor Toby Wallace, who is terrific as a young Vandals wannabe.

As the enigmatic Benny, Butler’s supernova star quality is undeniable, and the film opens with a bourbon and a bang — a shovel to the back of his head during a bar brawl that will haunt the rest of the film. In this bit of bravura filmmaking, Nichols demonstrates a slick style and rhythmic musicality that instantly draws us into this world.

Read more: Sixty years ago, a photographer rolled with a biker gang. Now his life is a movie

When we next lay eyes on Benny, he’s hulking over a pool table at a bar, his long golden arms and tousled blond coif raked over by the greedy gaze of Kathy (Jodie Comer) who stops in for a drink and leaves with a lifetime lover. Nichols’ camera eats Butler up hungrily, every inch of battered denim and well-worn leather; every soulful pout and blood-spattered grin wordlessly seducing Kathy to the dark side. It’s no wonder Kathy’s boyfriend beats it as soon as Benny turns up on their curb, and it’s no wonder Kathy bends her life around her new brooding boyfriend and his clan of grease-streaked miscreants.

Kathy becomes our narrator, her mile-a-minute Midwestern patter adding a layer of percussion to the rumbling engines and plaintive crooning of ’60s rock 'n’ roll on the soundtrack. In a rapid-fire Chicago cadence expertly enunciated by Liverpudlian actor and master of accents Comer, Kathy reels off stories about the boys into the microphone of photographer Lyon (Mike Faist). She’s the observant eyewitness and caretaker of their oral history, though the details are potentially lost, muddled or otherwise exaggerated by our storyteller. We see them through her eyes: sexy, dirty, violent and often tragic.

We also see them through re-creations of Lyon’s photographs, which Nichols and longtime cinematographer Adam Stone painstakingly compose and set to motion. In a montage, we see Lyon snapping portraits of characters like Cockroach (Cohen), Wahoo (Knapp) and Corky (Glusman), or capturing candids of the gang from the back of a bike. We see an image of a relaxed Benny riding over a bridge, one hand lazily gesturing behind him. Nichols improves upon Lyon’s shot by having our subject face the camera, rather than looking away.

Watching “The Bikeriders” feels like flipping through a photobook filled with arresting compositions and snippets of stories, and there’s a sketchy, snapshot quality to Nichols’ screenplay as well. The film is an evocation of character, place and time, the tempo alternating between moody and lively, like our central odd couple, laconic Benny and chatterbox Kathy.

Kathy has plenty to say about Benny, though we rarely see his unique qualities in action. He’s somewhat underwritten, and while Butler has the outsize presence to inhabit the iconic image, Kathy takes up all the air in the script. Benny is reduced to a symbol of sorts, a visual emblem of the Vandals’ dangerous glamour. Their mutual attraction is initially palpable, but we don’t see the glue that keeps them together throughout the years of peril and partying. The mysterious Benny has more chemistry with Johnny (Hardy), the Vandals founder and leader, and so too does Kathy.

Hardy is typically fantastic and fantastically weird, and he emerges as the gravitational center, not just of the Vandals, but of the film itself. Johnny leads by his own specific instinctual code based on whim and personal values, which gets harder to enforce as the club grows, with veterans returning from Vietnam seeking camaraderie, and bringing back darker vices.

“The Bikeriders” is a great hang until the party’s over and it’s time to hit the road. Though the dramatic thrust of the narrative never quite coheres, there is plenty of pathos, and the ebb and flow reflects both life itself and the uniquely human nature of the storytelling, as Kathy regales us with tales of these wild ones, who now live with the sound of roaring engines only haunting their memories.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.